Destey and Lupe Tovar were on their way to sneak a swim in the pool at their mother’s apartment complex when their lives took a major turn. Their route took them by the Salvation Army’s Third Avenue location, which had a heat relief station out front. They decided to stop for a bottle of cold water and a break from the scorching, 100-degree heat in the building’s air-conditioned living room.
The couple, married for a little less than two years, have been dealing with homelessness and substance use disorder for quite awhile. They met in detox, actually, and connected over their shared faith. They even prayed together in trap houses, she said, prompting their fellow travelers to ask, “Why are you guys out here?”
Recently, Destey said, they’d been praying for a change, hoping to detox again and land in a housing and treatment situation that would stick.
Their prayers were answered in the form of Rich Heitz, lead street outreach case manager for the Phoenix Rescue Mission. Heitz — who has lived experience with homelessness himself — runs the Mission’s outreach program. He is an expert in helping people deal with the exact issues the Tovars were struggling with. A close friend of Heitz’s happened to be staffing the Salvation Army heat relief booth and called in the cavalry after hearing about the Tovars’ desire to get into detox and access treatment services. While Lupe napped and Heitz called around to detox centers and treatment programs to find the couple a spot, Destey described her struggle to get off the street.
“It’s so hard,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. “To look down at my feet and realize they’re pitch black and realize that this is my life right now; it hurts so bad.”
Her most recent bout of homelessness was about a year, she said. Prior to that, she’d been living in her mother’s old apartment, not too far from the old house that was home to the heat relief station. While she was working at first, drugs threw everything into disarray.
“I’m not a functioning addict. When I do drugs, it’s just about drugs,” she said.
Her first encounter with highly addictive drugs was at 14, she said, when a friend whose father used meth encouraged her to smoke some, billing it as “crystal.” Had he said meth, she said, she would never have tried it. Instead, she was an instant addict. While she managed to kick that habit by her late teens, more misery was waiting in the wings. It’s a tale as old as time at this point, but she developed an opiate addiction after being prescribed pain pills for a broken vertebrae sustained in a car crash.
“When the injury healed, they didn’t wean me off of it or detox me. I wasn’t using meth; I was taking the medication as prescribed. But when it ran out, it was a few days of not sleeping and just… I think that withdrawing off of prescription pills was harder than heroin,” she said. Heroin being, of course, what she turned to after her prescription ended. Most opiate users these days have moved on to fentanyl, and Destey was no different. The first time she saw people using fentanyl, she said, she thought it was stupid. Unfortunately, its ubiquity won her over.
“Seeing everybody slumped over with their head in their lap; that’s not a good look. But it’s so cheap. You can get it for $1 a pill, $2 a pill. There isn’t almost anywhere you can’t get it,” she said.
The longest period of sobriety she had was a year, she said, but half of that was spent in jail. While she and Lupe have been through detox many times, she said a lack of support on the other end kept sending her back to the streets.
“Recently, this past year, whenever I’ve gone to get clean, they just discharge you to the street. Or they want to discharge you to a program where it’s unrealistic. You don’t know how to live life on life’s terms and work yet,” she said.
She also complained that many detox centers would release one or both of them earlier or later than they were supposed to, which caused all sorts of chaos with regard to staying sober. First, it would often be a few days before a treatment program was scheduled to pick one of them up, putting them back on the streets to stew. Second, it created a constant situation of one person looking for the other, as they couldn’t make agreed-upon meetings and had no phones to stay in touch. Being back on the street for any period of time meant an almost guaranteed relapse, Destey said.
“It’s not possible,” she said of staying clean on the street. “It’s too scary out there.”
“Housing is really like… I didn’t realize how important it was,” she said, observing that every time the couple had had a chance to get going with treatment, “not having somewhere to go and rest and feel safe” ended up being an insurmountable obstacle.
Shelters weren’t much better, she added.
“That shit’s so dangerous. There’s lots of violence. Women being raped. People won’t do anything about it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s happening inside the facility,” she said. Phoenix doesn’t have many shelters that allow couples, she noted, meaning she wouldn’t be able to stay with her husband for safety. While Heitz couldn’t find an inpatient treatment program that would allow them to live together, Destey said that didn’t matter.
Her and Lupe’s parents, who run a church in Fountain Hills, are best friends, she said, and “they don’t care if we’re together or not. They just want to see us get help. We’re still holding on to that stipulation of wanting to be together, but we’re not going to be together at all if we don’t get help.”
While Phoenix hasn’t exactly been kind to her and her husband, Destey said she has no plans to leave.
“I’m a city girl, and there’s so much going on down here. There’s always something to do. I think that I’ll live here the rest of my life,” she said. And she had high praise for people who work with the unhoused population.
“I know it’s growing and growing, and there are so many more people here, but I feel like it’s really evolving, and people are coming together more,” she said. “There’s this thing called Feed Phoenix. I don’t know how it started, but three times a week they go to different locations and — it’s more than just feeding us — they bring out all kinds of things.”
Feed Phoenix, per its website, provides access to “food, water, blankets, tents, harm reduction supplies, safer sex materials, hygiene items, general use living supplies, clothing, period products, pet care items, HIV & Hepatitis C testing, Medicare support and bus passes.”
As for her own situation, Destey was hopeful that this would be the big change.
Heitz said that they would likely end up in the Phoenix Rescue Mission’s men’s and women’s programs, respectively, and would be able to reunite after completing them. That, Destey said, was still the answer to her prayers.
“I can’t keep living like this. It’s no life at all,” she said.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is Real Change’s associate editor; he is temporarily on location in Phoenix, Arizona.
Read more of the Jun 15-21, 2022 issue.